During the doldrums that are the summer months bookending football seasons, many a thought race through our minds. When it comes to the Cowboys, sometimes those thoughts can lead to hostile acts if one believes that the window of opportunity is closing around the team's stars. Hopefully, that only manifests itself in remote control breakage, but nobody's making promises. Even more encouraging is when those thoughts are put to a more constructive, positive outlook; searching for the upward trends for the coming season.
We all (most of us) need reasons to believe that this year will be different. While I've maintained and declared I'm neither optimist nor pessimist, it's obvious from all of our participation here on this blog that we want... no, need this team to do well. In that vein, I've honed in on what I believe to be top four storylines to be hopeful about for 2012; the Four Quarters Of Hope.
Today's entry, the First Quarter, deals with assisting the sightless.
1st Quarter: Tyron Smith, Protector Of The Blind
In 2009, Doug Free spent the second half of the season filling in at right tackle for an injured Marc Colombo. He did this after not playing much at all his first two and a half seasons. The team gave him a crack to be the starting left tackle in 2010 and he acquitted himself rather well for the year; earning a new four-year deal worth over $17 million in guaranteed monies.
In 2011, things didn't go as well. The leader of the offensive line, Kyle Kosier, was shifted from left to right guard to help tutor the team's new first round draft pick. Doug Free's performance plummeted as he continuously was beaten by the oppositions speed rusher. Tony Romo was constantly under assault from his blind side and when he wasn't, Free was often committing penalties to keep it from happening. Something had to change.
The hope is that the change to now second-year starter Tyron Smith will shore up that blind spot.
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Unfortunately, Kyle Kosier's age and declining health have removed his father-figuring from this offensive line. suffer the same fate as Free without Kosier? Hope lies in Smith's freakish athleticism. His arm length (36 3/8") and foot dexterity (4.68 sec short shuttle time) means that he is infinitely better equipped to handle the edge rushers that gave Free issues in 2011. Being so young, one could easily see Smith as one of the main beneficiaries to Mike Woicik's strength and conditioning program. Entering the league, his first move punch was a bit underwhelming, but each week in the program cements him deeper into his grown-man body.
Smith's new sidekick appears to be Nate Livings. Cowboys brass are hoping he is the type of signing that Kyle Kosier was a few years back; cheap and a surprising key cog. He is a much more physically imposing figure than any of the Cowboys 2011 guards. I refuse to listen to reports that there is some confusion between the two during OTAs, which are meant to be learning experiences. The success of the offensive line is based on being a cohesive unit; we all know this. Why would we expect a player in a new position, and a player on a new team with a new position coach, not to have some hiccups? Talk to me during week three of training camp if they are still showing confusion.
As for Smith individually, you can probably still expect a few issues here and there with stunt detections, but Smith doesn't seem worried about switching sides to the left.
"It's not very complicated at all," Smith said of the switch. "You just got to convert everything you did on the right side over to the left side."
Smith says protecting Tony Romo's blind side won't be that different as long as he continues his regimen of focusing on fundamentals, improving technique and studying when he's away from Valley Ranch. The former ninth overall pick says he's a homebody that enjoys keeping a low profile and studying the playbook before going to sleep each night. We're also talking about a 21-year-old that attributes his work ethic to his first job, helping his family's cleaning service, which he started at age of 5.
"The more and more you do it, it just kind of fits in and kind of becomes second nature to you," Smith said of the transition to left tackle. "I know a lot of people expect a lot of things from a left tackle so I'm basically trying to not disappoint."
One cause for pause is the issues that the Philadelphia Eagle Wide 9 formation caused for Smith in 2011. Pro Football Focus only gave Smith two negative game grades on the season; they were the two losses to the Eagles. Jason Babin seemed to have his way with the rookie and now he's moving over to Trent Cole's side.
If QB Tony Romo is judged only by playoff success, it won't take long for Smith to be judged based on how he performs against division rivals. In 2011, his four worst pass blocking grades were received against Washington, New York and Philly (two games).
Smith gave up pressures (Sack, QB Hit or QB Hurry) on 4.8% of his pass protections in 2011; not elite but still very good. For a reference point, Joe Thomas' was 3%, Jason Peters was 3.7%, Doug Free was 7.9%. Free was at 5.2% in 2010. Even with no marked self-improvement, and who doesn't expect improvement in year two, the blindside would appear to be in better hands in 2012.
However, hope circles us back around to the circumstances surrounding Smith's rookie year. Rookie tackles don't normally have the overall success Smith did in 2011. They also don't normally miss rookie mini-camps, OTAs and have a truncated training camp. For a 20-year old to turn in that type of performance is pretty incredible.
To outsiders that didn't watch Smith game in and game out, they might look at eight sacks, 30 total QB pressures allowed and not know how truly dominant he was when he wasn't making these limited mistakes. Smith's errors, more often than not, seemed to be because of recognition errors that could be attributed to unfamiliarity.
To insiders, hope (cautious optimism?) springs eternal for Tyron, Protector of the Blind. With the list of elite edge rushers on the Cowboys 2012 schedule, he'll have plenty of chances to earn the accolades being heaped on him.